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“North By Northwest” Is Very Full Of Improbable Coincidences

Mistaken identity is all a matter of timing. Spoilers for a movie about to turn 55.

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Alfred Hitchcock's 1959 film North by Northwest is a classic caper full of incredible coincidences that all lead to Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint dangling off Mount Rushmore's giant George Washington face. The coincidences start at the very beginning. Roger Thornhill (Grant), a New York ad man, tells his assistant to call his mother to remind her they're going to the theater later. He remembers (a moment too late!) that his mother is at her friend's house, and her friend doesn't have a telephone. If it weren't for his mother's friend just having moved into a new apartment, nothing in this movie would have happened.


Because he realizes his secretary won't be able to reach his mother, Roger has to send her a telegram.

He has to send his mother a telegram because how else will she remember about the theater?? He flags down an employee in the hotel restaurant where he's eating a meal — the man he flags is currently calling out the name "Kaplan." Two crooks, whose plan was to have a hotel employee call out George Kaplan's name until George Kaplan responded, waited in the wings to SEIZE the man who "answered to" George Kaplan. They are pretty convinced that their plan was bulletproof, and so they don't believe Thornhill when he says he's not Kaplan. After all, isn't that exactly what Kaplan would say?

Kaplan has loads of secret identities, which means none of the kidnappers doubt for a moment that Roger Thornhill is the man they're after. Uh-oh!


Although Kaplan has "many names," neither the slippery criminal mastermind Mr. Vandamm (James Mason) nor his henchmen seem to question the fact that George "The Sly Spy" Kaplan always checks into hotels as George Kaplan. It turns out that Mr. Vandamm himself has assumed the identity of "Mr. Townsend" for the evening, so he knows how simple it is.

Roger is an extremely competent drunk driver.


The bad guys try to kill him by getting him wasted and letting him drive off a cliff, but he's a really great drunk driver, so he gets away. Joke's on you, bad guys.

Roger happens to get into a three-car pileup with a policecar.


Good thing that bicyclist came out of nowhere and Roger had to slam on his brakes! Otherwise those bad guys probably would've caught him.

No one believes that Roger was kidnapped. Even Roger's mom wants to believe the worst of her son.


Luckily for the bad guys, Mama Thornhill (Jessie Royce Landis) thinks Roger is a drunk (as established in the first scene of this movie), so she doesn't believe his story about being kidnapped and forced to drunkenly drive. She also undermines him in court with derisive noises!


Everyone is so doubtful of Roger that at the scene of the alleged crime they're not even skeptical when there are books in what is clearly a liquor cabinet.


Poor Roger, although a successful businessman who mysteriously disappeared from a business meeting yesterday, doesn't have a single shred of credibility.

Nobody demands that "Mrs. Townsend" provide ID or proof that her husband is at the United Nations.


For "Mrs. Townsend" (played by Josephine Hutchinson), just saying her husband is at the U.N. is valid government-issued ID enough. Incidentally, the real Mrs. Townsend has been dead for years.

Security at the Plaza Hotel is so lax that Roger's mother talks the concierge into giving her a key to George Kaplan's room.

No one at George Kaplan's hotel has ever seen George Kaplan, and no one has raised any red flags about this.


He hasn't answered his phone in days. The cleaning woman has never seen him. The cleaning woman has noticed that he doesn't sleep in his bed. The man who cleans his suits has never seen him. No one has noticed this or thinks it's strange.


For some reason, nobody in the very crowded room saw that the knife was thrown, and Roger's first instinct is to take the knife out of Townsend's back.


Now everyone thinks he's the murderer! This is supported by the way he brandishes the knife and threatens everyone, and then flees the scene.

At the train station, the ticket seller just happens to have a photograph of Roger right on his desk, forcing Roger to get on the train without a ticket — a fugitive from both the law and common decency.


Although the plane waited for five vehicles to pass before going after Roger and paused the attack for a sixth, the pilot doesn't see this gas tank and the plane crashes right into it.


Roger also has miraculous skin and suffers no ill effects from being doused in 1950s pesticides.

When Roger goes to Kaplan's hotel, the concierge happens to mention the time Kaplan checked out — before Eve even made the phone call that morning.

Luckily, Eve has a very strong arm and the address of the secret location she wrote down is indented on the next sheet of hotel notepaper, so Roger can follow her.

At an art auction, Mr. Vandamm says he thinks Roger was trained by the FBI, and Roger finally starts to put things together.

When the FBI-approved Professor (Leo G. Carroll) shows up, Roger trusts him even though the Professor doesn't proposition him for sex.


With every reason to stop trusting everyone, Roger keeps trusting. If you stop trusting, the bad guys win.

Roger and the Professor devise a plan where Eve shoots Roger with blanks so Mr. Vandamm will trust her again. Luckily, no one in the very crowded room notices he's actually unharmed!

Roger, because he's a trusting guy, never suspected that Eve wanted to maintain her cover so that she could stay undercover.


"I thought she would run away with me!" (Guys, he's both forgiving AND trusting, so he let that whole "she tried to get me cropdusted to death" thing go.)

Coincidentally, Roger is watching from outside right when Leonard reveals that Eve must be a spy because, coincidentally, Eve didn't unload the blanks from her gun!


Leonard (Martin Landau) is clearly a real go-getter, but what are the odds that a woman so worried about being found out wouldn't unload the blanks she used to pretend to shoot someone?


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